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III. THE UNCLE

Rudy arrived at last at his uncle's house, and was thankful to find the people like those he had been accustomed to see. There was only one cretin amongst them, a poor idiot boy, one of those unfortunate beings who, in their neglected conditions, go from house to house, and are received and taken care of in different families, for a month or two at a time.

Poor Saperli had just arrived at his uncle's house when Rudy came. The uncle was an experienced hunter; he also followed the trade of a cooper; his wife was a lively little person, with a face like a bird, eyes like those of an eagle, and a long, hairy throat. Everything was new to Rudy- the fashion of the dress, the manners, the employments, and even the language; but the latter his childish ear would soon learn. He saw also that there was more wealth here, when compared with his former home at his grandfather's. The rooms were larger, the walls were adorned with the horns of the chamois, and brightly polished guns. Over the door hung a painting of the Virgin Mary, fresh alpine roses and a burning lamp stood near it. Rudy's uncle was, as we have said, one of the most noted chamois hunters in the whole district, and also one of the best guides. Rudy soon became the pet of the house; but there was another pet, an old hound, blind and lazy, who would never more follow the hunt, well as he had once done so. But his former good qualities were not forgotten, and therefore the animal was kept in the family and treated with every indulgence. Rudy stroked the old hound, but he did not like strangers, and Rudy was as yet a stranger; he did not, however, long remain so, he soon endeared himself to every heart, and became like one of the family.

"We are not very badly off, here in the canton Valais," said his uncle one day; "we have the chamois, they do not die so fast as the wild goats, and it is certainly much better here now than in former times. How highly the old times have been spoken of, but ours is better. The bag has been opened, and a current of air now blows through our once confined valley. Something better always makes its appearance when old, worn-out things fail."

When his uncle became communicative, he would relate stories of his youthful days, and farther back still of the warlike times in which his father had lived. Valais was then, as he expressed it, only a closed-up bag, quite full of sick people, miserable cretins; but the French soldiers came, and they were capital doctors, they soon killed the disease and the sick people, too. The French people knew how to fight in more ways than one, and the girls knew how to conquer too; and when he said this the uncle nodded at his wife, who was a French woman by birth, and laughed. The French could also do battle on the stones. "It was they who cut a road out of the solid rock over the Simplon- such a road, that I need only say to a child of three years old, 'Go down to Italy, you have only to keep in the high road,' and the child will soon arrive in Italy, if he followed my directions."

Then the uncle sang a French song, and cried, "Hurrah! long live Napoleon Buonaparte." This was the first time Rudy had ever heard of France, or of Lyons, that great city on the Rhone where his uncle had once lived. His uncle said that Rudy, in a very few years, would become a clever hunter, he had quite a talent for it; he taught the boy to hold a gun properly, and to load and fire it. In the hunting season he took him to the hills, and made him drink the warm blood of the chamois, which is said to prevent the hunter from becoming giddy; he taught him to know the time when, from the different mountains, the avalanche is likely to fall, namely, at noontide or in the evening, from the effects of the sun's rays; he made him observe the movements of the chamois when he gave a leap, so that he might fall firmly and lightly on his feet. He told him that when on the fissures of the rocks he could find no place for his feet, he must support himself on his elbows, and cling with his legs, and even lean firmly with his back, for this could be done when necessary. He told him also that the chamois are very cunning, they place lookers-out on the watch; but the hunter must be more cunning than they are, and find them out by the scent.

One day, when Rudy went out hunting with his uncle, he hung a coat and hat on an alpine staff, and the chamois mistook it for a man, as they generally do. The mountain path was narrow here; indeed it was scarcely a path at all, only a kind of shelf, close to the yawning abyss. The snow that lay upon it was partially thawed, and the stones crumbled beneath the feet. Every fragment of stone broken off struck the sides of the rock in its fall, till it rolled into the depths beneath, and sunk to rest. Upon this shelf Rudy's uncle laid himself down, and crept forward. At about a hundred paces behind him stood Rudy, upon the highest point of the rock, watching a great vulture hovering in the air; with a single stroke of his wing the bird might easily cast the creeping hunter into the abyss beneath, and make him his prey. Rudy's uncle had eyes for nothing but the chamois, who, with its young kid, had just appeared round the edge of the rock. So Rudy kept his eyes fixed on the bird, he knew well what the great creature wanted; therefore he stood in readiness to discharge his gun at the proper moment. Suddenly the chamois made a spring, and his uncle fired and struck the animal with the deadly bullet; while the young kid rushed away, as if for a long life he had been accustomed to danger and practised flight. The large bird, alarmed at the report of the gun, wheeled off in another direction, and Rudy's uncle was saved from danger, of which he knew nothing till he was told of it by the boy.

While they were both in pleasant mood, wending their way homewards, and the uncle whistling the tune of a song he had learnt in his young days, they suddenly heard a peculiar sound which seemed to come from the top of the mountain. They looked up, and saw above them, on the over-hanging rock, the snow-covering heave and lift itself as a piece of linen stretched on the ground to dry raises itself when the wind creeps under it. Smooth as polished marble slabs, the waves of snow cracked and loosened themselves, and then suddenly, with the rumbling noise of distant thunder, fell like a foaming cataract into the abyss. An avalanche had fallen, not upon Rudy and his uncle, but very near them. Alas, a great deal too near!

"Hold fast, Rudy!" cried his uncle; "hold fast, with all your might."

Then Rudy clung with his arms to the trunk of the nearest tree, while his uncle climbed above him, and held fast by the branches. The avalanche rolled past them at some distance; but the gust of wind that followed, like the storm-wings of the avalanche, snapped asunder the trees and bushes over which it swept, as if they had been but dry rushes, and threw them about in every direction. The tree to which Rudy clung was thus overthrown, and Rudy dashed to the ground. The higher branches were snapped off, and carried away to a great distance; and among these shattered branches lay Rudy's uncle, with his skull fractured. When they found him, his hand was still warm; but it would have been impossible to recognize his face. Rudy stood by, pale and trembling; it was the first shock of his life, the first time he had ever felt fear. Late in the evening he returned home with the fatal news,- to that home which was now to be so full of sorrow. His uncle's wife uttered not a word, nor shed a tear, till the corpse was brought in; then her agony burst forth. The poor cretin crept away to his bed, and nothing was seen of him during the whole of the following day. Towards evening, however, he came to Rudy, and said, "Will you write a letter for me? Saperli cannot write; Saperli can only take the letters to the post."

"A letter for you!" said Rudy; "who do you wish to write to?"

"To the Lord Christ," he replied.

"What do you mean?" asked Rudy.

Then the poor idiot, as the cretin was often called, looked at Rudy with a most touching expression in his eyes, clasped his hands, and said, solemnly and devoutly, "Saperli wants to send a letter to Jesus Christ, to pray Him to let Saperli die, and not the master of the house here."

Rudy pressed his hand, and replied, "A letter would not reach Him up above; it would not give him back whom we have lost."

It was not, however, easy for Rudy to convince Saperli of the impossibility of doing what he wished.

"Now you must work for us," said his foster-mother; and Rudy very soon became the entire support of the house.

 

3.叔父

洛狄来到了叔父的家里。谢谢上帝,这里住着的人跟洛狄平时所看到的人没有两样。这儿只有一个白痴病患者。他是一个可怜的傻孩子。他是那些穷苦人中间的一个,这些又穷又孤独的人老是在瓦利斯州流浪,从这家走到那家,每到一家就住上一个多月。当洛狄到来的时候,可怜的沙伯里恰巧住在他的叔父家里。

叔父是一个强壮的猎人;除打猎以外,他还有箍桶的手艺。他的妻子是一个活泼的小妇人,长着一个雀子般的面孔。

一对鹰眼睛,一个盖着一层厚汗毛的长脖子。

对洛狄来说,这里的一切东西都是很新奇的——服装、举动、习惯,甚至语言都是新奇的。不过他的耳朵对这里的语言很快就习惯了。这里的景况比起外祖父的家来,似乎要好得多。他们住的房间比较大,而且墙上还装饰着羚羊角和擦得很亮的枪支,门上还挂着圣母像——像前还摆着阿尔卑斯山的新鲜石楠,点着一盏灯。

前面已经说过,叔父是这一州第一流的猎人和最可靠的向导。洛狄现在快要成为这家的宝贝了。不过这家已经有了一个宝贝——一只又瞎又聋的猎犬。它现在再也不能像以前那样出去打猎了。但是大家还记得它过去的本领,因此它也成了家庭的一员,过着舒服的生活。洛狄抚摸着这猎犬,然而它却不愿意跟生人交朋友。洛狄的确是一个生人,不过这只是暂时的现象。他很快就获得了全家的喜爱。

“瓦利斯州的生活很不坏,”叔父说。“我们这儿有许多羚羊;它们死得不像山羊那样快。这里的日子比以前要好过得多。不管人们怎样称赞过去的日子,我们现在究竟是很舒服的。这个袋子现在穿了一个洞——我们这个闭塞的山谷现在有清凉的风吹进来了。旧的东西一衰退,新的东西就会到来。”

他说。叔父把话一扯开,就谈起他儿时的事情。有时还谈起更早的事情——他的父亲那个时代的事情。那时瓦利斯州是一个所谓“闭气”的袋子,装满了病人和可怜的白痴病患者。

“不过法国军队到来了,”他说。“他们真算得上是医生!

他们立刻把这疾病消灭了,还把害这病的人一同消灭了。这些法国人才会打仗呢,而且方式是多种多样的!他们的女儿才会征服人呢!”于是叔父对他的法国血统的太太瞟了一眼,接着就大笑起来。“法国人还知道怎样炸毁我们的石头呢!而且他们也这样做了。他们在石山上炸开一条辛卜龙公路——它是这样的一条路:我只须把它指给一个三岁的孩子看,对他说:到意大利去吧,沿着这条公路走就得了!只要这孩子不离开这条路,他就可以一直走到意大利。”

这时叔父就唱起一支歌来,同时喊:“拿破仑万岁!”

洛狄第一次听到人们谈起法国和伦河上的那个大城市里昂——他的叔父曾到那里去过。

没有过了多少年,洛狄就成了一个能干的羚羊猎人。他的叔父说,洛狄天生有这副本领。因此他教他怎样使枪,怎样瞄准和射击。叔父在打猎的季节里把他带上山去,让他喝羚羊的热血,因为这可以治猎人的头晕。叔父教给他怎样判断山上的雪块崩落下来的时刻——根据太阳光的强度,判断是在中午还是晚上。叔父还教给他怎样观察羚羊的跳跃,怎样向羚羊学习,以便练出一套落到地上而仍能像羚羊一样站着不动的本领。叔父还教给他怎样在没有立足点的石崖上用肘来支持自己,用大腿和小腿上的肌肉爬——在必要的场合,甚至脖子都可以使用。

叔父说,羚羊是很狡猾的,常常布有岗哨。因此一个猎人必须比它更狡猾,让它嗅不出他的痕迹才成。他可以把帽子和上衣放在爬山手杖上来欺骗它们,使它们误把这种伪装当成人。有一天叔父带洛狄去打猎的时候就使过这么一套巧计。

山上的路很狭窄。的确,这不能算是路。它实际上是伸在一个张着大口的深渊上的“飞檐”。路上的雪已经融了一半,石块经鞋底一踩就裂成碎片。因此叔父不得不躺下去,一寸一寸地向前爬。碎石片落下来,从这个石壁撞到那个石壁上,一直坠进下边黑暗的深渊里。洛狄站在一块伸出的石头上,离开他的叔父大约有一百步的距离。从他站着的地方。他忽然看到一只巨大的兀鹰在他的叔父头上盘旋着。兀鹰只须拍一下翅膀,就可以把叔父打进深渊,再把他的尸身吃掉。

深渊对面有一只母羚羊和一只小羚羊,叔父在注视着它们的动静,而洛狄则在注视叔父头上的那只兀鹰。他知道这鸟的意图。因此他把他的手按在枪机上,随时准备射击。这时那只羚羊忽然跳起来了。叔父已经放了枪;羚羊被一颗致命的子弹打穿了。不过它的孩子却逃脱了,好像它早已学会了死里逃生的本领似的。那只兀鹰一听到枪声就吓得向另一个方向飞去。叔父一点也不知道他自己的危险处境。他从洛狄口中才知道有这么一回事情。

他们兴高采烈地回家;叔父哼出一个他年轻时候唱的调子。这时他们忽然听到离他们不远的地方有一个特别的声音。他们向周围望,向上面望。他们看见山坡上的积雪动起来了——在一起一伏地动着,像铺在地上的被单在被风吹拂似的。这片像大理石一样光滑和坚硬的雪浪现在裂成了碎片,变成一股汹涌的激流,发出像雷轰一样的声音。这是雪山在崩颓。雪块并没有落到洛狄和叔父的头上,但是离他们很近,一点也不远。

“站稳,洛狄!”叔父喊着,“拿出你全身的力量来站稳!”

洛狄紧紧地抱住近旁的一棵树干。叔父爬得更高,牢牢地抱住树枝。雪山就在离他们几尺远的地方崩塌。但是一阵飓风——雪崩所带动的一股暴风——把周围的大小树木像折断干芦苇似的都吹断了,把这些树的残骸吹得遍地都是。洛狄滚到地上。他抱着的那根树干已经被劈成两半。树顶被吹到老远的地方去了。洛狄在一堆残枝中间发现了叔父的破碎的头颅。叔父的手还是热的,但是面孔已经辨认不出了。洛狄站在他的身旁,面色惨白,全身发抖。这是他有生以来第一次经历到的恐怖,第一次体会到的震惊。

他在深夜才把这个噩耗带到家里。全家的人都充满了悲哀。主妇呆呆地站着,一句话也说不出来;她连眼泪都没有了。只有当尸体搬回以后,她的悲哀才爆发出来。那个可怜的白痴病患者钻进了床里,整天都没有人看见他。到天黑的时候他才偷偷地走到洛狄身边来。

“请你替我写一封信!沙伯里不会写信!沙伯里要把这封信送到邮局发出去!”

“你要发一封信?”洛狄问。“寄给谁?”

“寄给基督!”

“你说寄给谁?”

这个傻子——大家都这样称呼白痴病患者——用一种感动人的眼光望了洛狄一会儿,然后合着手,庄严地、慢慢地说:“寄给耶稣基督!沙伯里要寄给他一封信,祈求他让沙伯里死去,不要让这屋子的主人死去。”

洛狄紧握着他的手,说:

“信寄不到的!信不能使他活转来!”

但是洛狄没有办法叫沙伯里相信这是不可能的。

“你现在是这一家的靠山了。”婶母说。于是洛狄就成了这一家的靠山。